Extended reality tools for cultural heritage: an overview of available technologies

Author: Ekin Derdiyok (Marketing Specialist at ZAUBAR) eko@zaubar.com

Date: 2024-05-03

Extended reality (XR) tools are becoming crucial for cultural and heritage institutions like galleries, libraries, archives, museums, universities, and various cultural organizations. These tools, including virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR), provide unique ways to deeply connect with audiences, enhance learning experiences, and carefully preserve history. This guide is aimed at helping managers of such institutions decide how to best use digital innovations, highlighting the distinct features, advantages, and challenges of each XR technology from a strategic management viewpoint. The article then goes on to provide an overview of commercially available AR tools.

Virtual Reality (VR) Technologies

VR places users in completely artificial settings, allowing interaction via headsets, enabling virtual tours, artifact examinations, or historical reenactments from anywhere. VR is especially suited for remote audiences, where a physical visit to a museum, memorial, or tourist landmark is not feasible.

  • How It’s Used:
    • 360-Degree Views: Places viewers in a virtual setting for full panoramic exploration as though they were there.
    • Virtual Reconstructions: Rebuilds historical scenes or archeological sites for thorough exploration.
    • Interactive Stories: Offers user-driven experiences, pulling users into historical events or narratives.
  • Ways to Interact:
    • Movement Methods: Lets users move in completely virtual spaces using different interfaces like hand controllers or gaze commands. 
    • Physical Interaction: Allows examination and handling of virtual duplicates for detailed insights.
    • Learning Through Gaming: Educational games about historical times, artifacts, or cultural practices improve learning by doing.
  • Benefits:
    • Deep Engagement: Provides intense engagement, improving education about history and culture.
    • Wider Access: Opens up remote access to collections and exhibitions, making cultural education more inclusive.
    • Dynamic Education: Serves as an interactive teaching tool, promoting deeper understanding through active involvement.
  • Drawbacks:
    • Dependence on Equipment: Successful experience depends on users having VR gear.
    • Motion sickness: Some consumers may be sensitive to motion in virtual worlds, thereby making it an unpleasant experience.

Mixed Reality (MR) Technologies

MR merges real and virtual worlds, letting users interact with digital elements as part of their environment, ideal for lifelike artifact displays or site reconstructions. Mixed reality possesses some of the properties of both technologies listed above. On top of these, the following remarks can be made:

  • How It’s Used:
    • Interactive artifacts: Visitors of a museum can virtually touch and manipulate the sensitive artefacts. This ensures that important artifacts are safekept, while not alienating the visitors.
    • Collaborative learning: MR offers a unique learning experience in a classroom where the teacher can demonstrate a concept by doing. In other words, the teacher can demonstrate hands-on.
  • Ways to Interact:
    • Superior interactivity: MR allows users to reach out to digital objects with their hands, enlarge, shrink, rotate them with natural human gestures.
    • Gaze tracking: MR headsets can detect where the user is looking at and use this as a command, just like a touchpad or a mouse is used for a computer.
  • Benefits:
    • Real and Virtual Blend: Offers experiences that mix immersion with reality, opening up unique learning opportunities.
    • Fresh Ways to Engage: Brings in new interaction methods, like interactive guides or real-feel reconstructions, improving the visitor experience.
    • Flexible Use: Fits both on-site and remote use, broadening exhibit possibilities.
  • Drawbacks:
    • Complex Setup: MR development and launch are complex and expensive.
    • Special Hardware: Needs specific equipment, which are usually uncommon or expensive.
    • Ongoing Updates: Requires constant content refreshes and system upkeep, increasing operational costs.

Augmented Reality (AR) Technologies

AR adds digital information or visuals to the real world via devices like smartphones and AR glasses, enhancing real exhibits with additional data or visual effects. Put differently, AR preserves physical reality, while augmenting it by overlaying digital images on top of the user’s surroundings. AR is especially useful for institutions who would like to extend the offerings of their physical exhibitions with digital tools. Unlike VR, AR experiences still depend on a physical visit, hence is more suitable for institutions looking to offer an immersive experience on their premises.

  • How It’s Used:
    • Info-Rich Displays: Enhances physical items with digital details, stories, or animations.
    • Reduce Clutter: AR reduces the dependance on infographics, TVs in the exhibition space, by offloading these to an on-demand digital channel.
    • Living Art: Art pieces and artifacts can be brought to life with animations and interactivity.
    • Past Over Present: Layers historical scenes over today’s environments. This way, students of history can learn about the history in a situated, embodied way. This is radically different from learning from a book or video, where the student has to match the location and information on their head. AR binds location with the history, thereby improving the learning outcomes. 
  • Ways to Interact:
    • Discovery Through Exploration: Reveals more content by interacting with certain markers or objects. While visiting an exhibition or an important location, extra information about the object of tour can be revealed with augmented reality.
    • Integrated Education: Combines quizzes, puzzles, or scavenger hunts with physical displays, for an interactive learning experience.
    • Social Experience: Makes sharing augmented experiences easy, spreading exhibit reach.
  • Benefits:
    • Interactive Layers: Adds an engaging dimension to displays, boosting visitor interest and memory.
    • Easy Access: Uses common personal tech, extending the institution’s reach.
    • Affordability: Utilizes available devices, offering a cost-effective digital strategy. AR experiences does not require dedicated hardware.
    • Eco-friendly: By 
    • Programmable: By digitizing infographics and written posters, AR reduces the need to install physical stations, boards, or posters. This way, curators keep full control of the exhibition information at all times.
  • Drawbacks:
    • Varied Experiences: User experience can differ greatly based on device quality.
    • Limited Immersion: Might not immerse users as fully as VR, possibly affecting visitor interest.

Commercially available location-based augmented reality tools

Strollhunt: The most fun way to explore cities


Strollhunt turns city exploration experience into a scavenger hunt. As users “stroll” through the city, they come across hidden gems and collect them. This gamification is further combined with a location-based learning experience to turn the whole experience into an infotainment experience.

Strollhunt prompts cultural institutions to contact them to help them to collaborate on a project where education and entertainment goes hand in hand.

What is Strollhunt?

Scavengar: Augmented Reality at your Fingertips.


Scavengar offers an easy way for users to create and distribute location-based augmented reality content. Using their drag & drop editor, immersive experiences can be curated on the user’s smartphone or tablet. These experiences are then distributed to other users using App Clips, which do not require download.

Cultural institutions, especially those with on-site activities, may benefit from Scavengar 

Next-level location-based Augmented Reality

8th Wall: Powering the World’s WebAR


8th wall offers a flexible way to create and distribute AR content as WebAR experiences. WebAR has the unique advantage of being supported by a very large number of devices, making the experiences more accessible. 8th Wall also has a section for finding a partner, who would assist the customers in the content creation process, or overcome the difficulties faced while using the software.

Those cultural institutions who would like to create a more polished experience can contact one of the partner agencies to outsource more of the workload. The following long form video should help decision makers in cultural institutions.

8Talks: Using WebAR for Historical Preservation

Zappar: The world’s leading augmented reality platform and creative studio


Zappar is a combination of a creative studio, software and hardware solutions all under one roof, and this is their unique selling proposition. Their focus has been more on the retail and brands side. They have affordable mixed reality headsets and offer more than the software.

Cultural institutions can turn to Zappar’s website to learn more about XR technologies and benefit from their rich content. They can also completely outsource their design and development processes to Zappar Creative Studios.

Getting started with Zapworks Designer | No code AR tool

Strategic Planning for Cultural Organizations

Leaders at galleries, libraries, archives, museums, universities, and other cultural bodies need to consider many factors when thinking about XR technology adoption. These factors include budget, audience makeup, desired immersion and interaction levels, and the institution’s strategic objectives. Choosing between technology provider involves balancing immersive depth with cost, accessibility, and the ability to enhance engagement with cultural and historical content. By selecting the right technology, institutions can create unforgettable, educational, and interactive experiences that impress audiences and advance the preservation and appreciation of cultural heritage.

About the Author

Ekin Derdiyok is responsible for marketing operations at ZAUBAR. He creates content for educating potential XR users and brings them up-to-date with developments in this industry. He is also part of the VisionXperience community event organization team. You can contact the author at Ekin Derdiyok